By Brian Thompson
I. The Setup
I apologize if I’m a bit rambly this week, but my head’s still spinning from last night. And no, that’s no metaphor. In addition to celebrating Barack Obama’s victory with wine, whiskey, and oral sex, I also broke out the old Necronomicon and summoned a few demons—you know, to liven up the party. Anyway, they did something weird to my spine, and I’ve looked like the emotionally disturbed girl from The Exorcist ever since. Don’t know how figure skaters do it.
Of course, my magically induced head spinning was worth it. Like has been said already on this website, the scene after the race was called really did seem like the end of Return of the Jedi, in that my neighborhood’s George W. Bush statue was toppled by a crowd of faceless youngsters chanting “the son of the suns” over and over again. And then there were the Ewoks. Weird.
But it wasn’t just the American people and everyone around the world who cares about rationality and freedom that sang old Endorian folk songs Tuesday night. I couldn’t help but notice the media were pretty enthused as well. Tom Brokaw’s voice cracked during Obama’s victory speech. He tried to cover his excitement with some B.S. about “witnessing an extraordinary moment in the history of peaceful democracy”, but we all knew he was an Obama mama. How couldn’t he be? The man keeps up with world events and has a functioning cerebellum. When Gohio finally yelled “Gobama” and the race was clinched for good, careful listeners could hear crew members clapping in the background on several news channels, including CNN. Even Fox News got caught up in the act. Botox monster Shepard Smith berated Joe the Plumber for calling Obama a terrorist and lambasted Ralph Nader for suggesting that our president-elect could turn out to be an “Uncle Tom”. Of course, Smith went about this deserved chastisement in the creepiest, smarmiest way possible, but it proved that Fox might be capable of directing its creepy smarminess across the aisle now that it looks like the majority of America is sick of smelling the crap they’ve been shoveling the last eight years. Who knew integrity equaled ratings? (Hint: Not the producers of the Fox Network’s Hole in the Wall, which, for those who don’t know, is a game show where people shove their disgusting bodies through holes in walls.)
But isn’t the news only supposed to arouse itself with bad news? Why should an uplifting story of political triumph and racial barrier bursting trump a sexy police chase or a cute little girl hacked to bits in a basement? Might there be a bias toward the positive after all?
II. The Findings
Probably not. Presidential election notwithstanding, a basement full of baby parts probably would have slithered its ugly head through all the campaign holograms and pie charts on election night. At least long enough to allow our trusted newspeople to go on at length about how they have no idea who created this grisly scene, but it’s damn sure grisly. However, this is a science column (of sorts), and when you’re talking about science news, fluff reigns supreme.
Yes, the media does tend to cover scientific stories with a positive outcome much more often than the negative ones. This phenomenon is called positive outcome bias, and is pretty obvious to anyone who follows science news. On any given day, you’re likely to click on the science section of your favorite news site and– Actually, let’s stop here for a second and talk about the annoying fact that more and more news sites are starting to combine their science sections with their technology sections. I see the reasoning. Without science, we wouldn’t have iPhones or Blackberries or Nintendo DSes. But when I’m looking for science news, I’m not looking for breaking news on whatever tilty whirly monkey game is finally being ported to my handheld game machine. The only handheld game machine I have is an Amazon Kindle, and the only game I play on it is called reading. Hold on, let me take a sip of my elitist latte…
God, I love Obama.
Anyway, that was a lie. I actually have a Nintendo DS. In addition to being an Obama mama, I am also a cooking mama. But I stand by the science/tech thing. Pisses me off.
Anyway, when you browse through the science news, you’re likely to find all sorts of headlines along the lines of “New breakthrough in…” or “Exciting discovery about…” or “Holy crap, have you seen this, bra?” (if, like me, you get your news from Fraterninews.com—slogan: “Newses for Douches”). This is pretty understandable, since it’s not really narratively interesting to write about how a massive study was performed and didn’t turn up anything at all. The positive outcome studies always follow a desirable plot. There was a problem or question, a team of researchers set out to solve it, and it was solved in a surprising or heartwarming way. It’s like every episode of Full House, if you just replace “team of researchers” with “repressed homosexual stereotype, failed comedian, and John Stamos’ mullet.
This wouldn’t be a problem except that the need for the media to have a happy outcome to a science story often results in reporting on faulty or even misleading research. I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen headlines about new evidence that psychic powers are real or that acupuncture might cure cancer or that a new invention could finally lead to flying cars. In the case of quack science, there are sometimes individual studies that seem to prove an impossible thing true. Take homeopathy, for instance. Homeopathy is the belief that diluting a substance in water over and over again—to the point where that substance no longer statistically exists in the water—somehow magically results in a medicine for whatever that substance caused. So, according to the homeopath, diluting a bit of bee venom until there’s literally only a molecule or two of the stuff in a glass of water will create a liquid bee sting cure. It’s nonsense, of course, but you’ll find a few studies which claim to show a positive effect for homeopathic medicine. But when you look deeper, you’ll see that these studies often have a very small sample size or very loose controls or can’t be duplicated by any other researchers. Or all of the above. In other words, they’re bad studies—often not even going through the normal process of peer review before they’re published. But a newspaper or news website will pick up these studies and report them as exciting new discoveries.
In the case of crank science (free energy machines, for instance), you’ll often see a pattern in the reporting. There’s a lone genius working in his basement, shunned by the scientific community, who has discovered a way to transcend and contradict the known laws of the universe. With just a few years more work and a few million dollars more funding, we’ll all have geothermal lightning spikes powering our hoverboards. These, too, are exciting stories. Only you and I both know that we’re still being reamed for electricity. And I definitely don’t own a hoverboard.
III. The Conclusion
None of this is to say that real, unexpected scientific breakthroughs never happen. They happen all the time. Scientists at MIT have successfully teleported electrons by utilizing the theory of quantum entanglement. That’s some crazy sh!t, and I have no idea how it works, but it’s real. The research was submitted to a scientific journal, where it was picked apart by other scientists who couldn’t find any obvious flaws in the methodology, so it was published. That’s how science works. And even then, it’s no guarantee. The experiments have to be repeated multiple times by multiple people before they can be accepted as absolutely true. Unfortunately, because of positive outcome bias, these aren’t the only stories that find their way into the news.
So, I’ve learned to temper my excitement with a little bit of skepticism when it comes to reading the headlines. But I’m pretty sure Obama really won. Why else would I be chatting right now with the glowing blue spirits of my dead mentors?
Oh yeah… The Necronomicon.
About The Amateur Scientist: Brian Thompson is a professor of amateur science at a major imaginary university and a regular blogger at CHUD. He has been able to read and write for over seventeen years.
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